More than a half-million people have lost over 5 million pounds by learning to conquer their food cravings. For many people, food choices have little to do with physical hunger. Instead, they are driven by an emotional hunger and they eat to satisfy some kind of longing. But with a conscious approach to what causes their food cravings, they can regain control.
As many as three-quarters of our food choices — about 188 daily choices for those who are obese — are driven by emotional rather than physical hunger. Emotional hunger is caused not by an empty stomach, but by feelings that create discomfort: stress, anxiety, loneliness, boredom, impatience, anger, and frustration, to name a few.
For successful weight loss, it’s critical to redirect emotional eating. Every time you’re at a decision point with food — which, by the way, happens more than 200 times a day for most Americans — stop and assess what is really behind your craving.
Use these five sequential steps to control emotional hunger:
1. Take a mindful moment. Instead of reflexively heading for the kitchen when you’re hungry, take a minute to think about your hunger and whether its origin is physical or mental. Think about when you last ate — has it been 2 to 3 hours or longer? If not, ask yourself: What do I really want? You may be experiencing a difficult emotion, like frustration, boredom, or loneliness. If you’re craving a specific food, such as chocolate cake, cookies, or salty snacks, it’s likely to be connected to emotional hunger.
2. Put it in writing. Keeping a food journal in which you record the time of day, a description of your hunger, and what you’re feeling (and why you’re feeling it) can reveal a pattern to your emotional eating.
3. Make a decision. Ignoring emotional cravings sometimes works, but if the “just say no” strategy doesn’t work, decide to eat a healthier substitute food, such as air-popped popcorn or a piece of fruit. Or, find a substitute activity to fill the emotional need. Need comfort? Take a bath. Feeling isolated? Do a good deed for someone in need. Feeling bored or lethargic? Go for a walk or put on some music and dance.
4. Do a gut check. After you eat, wait 15 minutes and take a moment to examine your feelings about the choice you made. Do you feel satisfied and peaceful? Guilty and shameful? If you feel unhappy with the choice you made, reflect on how you might have acted differently — without beating yourself up. The goal is to learn from your mistakes.
5. Deal with the feelings. Take a look at the feelings that trigger your emotional hunger and brainstorm a few nonfood responses. For example, if being tired triggered your craving, try to go to bed earlier or take a nap if the feeling returns. If the emotion is more complex, such as stress over a bad relationship, you may need to seek counseling. When problems can’t be immediately solved, turn to positive distractions that take your mind away from whatever is bothering you.
When you work toward solving the root problems behind your emotional need to eat, the cravings will subside and you’ll discover the satisfaction of being back in control.
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Dr. Rovenia M. Brock, Ph.D. is a leading nutrition coach for over two decades and author of a new book, Lose Your Final 15: Dr. Ro’s Plan to Eat 15 Servings a Day & Lose 15 Pounds at a Time(Rodale Books, January 2017). Known for her easy-to-apply diet, fitness and health tips for people of all ages, she served as nutrition coach on The View, helping Sherri Shepherd lose more than 40 pounds. She is a frequent contributing Nutrition Coach to the Dr. Oz Show, and also has contributed to NBC’s Today show, The CBS Early Show, Good Morning America, and National Public Radio. Dr. Ro has been featured in O Magazine, Self, Ebony, Essence, The Dallas Morning News, Memphis Commercial Appeal, and was recently named one of More magazine’s top 5 nutritionists. She holds a Ph.D. in Nutritional Sciences from Howard University and is the author of Dr. Ro’s Ten Secrets to Livin’ Healthy. Learn more at EverythingRo.com.